Today's Reading

So we come to some paradoxes. Being off the clock implies time freedom, yet time freedom stems from time discipline. You must know where the time goes in order to transcend the ceaseless ticking.

You can wander into philosophical knots on such matters, knots you might need to run miles along the coast to sort out, but I believe that part of wisdom is knowing that two contradictory concepts can both be right when seen from a broader perspective. The key is finding the right vantage point on the cliff to take in the full view.

This book is about finding that lookout spot for understanding time freedom. It is about developing a new mind-set. There will always be tension between knowing how we spend our time and moving beyond an obsession with the minutes. Yet this tension does not mean that both aren't simultaneously possible. Honoring time requires embracing certain truths: that time is precious and time is plentiful. Time is finite, so we must make smart choices about it. But time is also abundant: there is enough for anything that truly matters.

Who Feels Pressed for Time?

Much discussion of modern life is premised on the first part of this paradox. Colleagues answer the "How was your weekend?" greeting on Monday morning with the ubiquitous "Busy." Trend stories assume we are all starved for time, though a closer look at this perception finds that "all" is stretching things. During a recent trip to the gym on a Saturday morning—fit in after dropping off Sam at a wrestling meet for his team warm-up, but before his first match—I noted that the older ladies who'd just exited the pool and were in the locker room with me were still in there after I came back from running three miles on the treadmill. Why not? They were enjoying one another's company. There was no rush.

Gallup conducts frequent polls on time stress. In 2015, the organization found that people who are employed are far more likely to say they do not have the time to do the things they want to do (61 percent) than people, such as retirees, who are not working (32 percent). Likewise, people with children at home are more likely to report that they feel this time stress (61 percent) than people without kids at home (42 percent).

These statistics imply that the secret of time abundance is simple: stop working and skip having a family. The problem is that these choices present obvious drawbacks. Plus, it oversimplifies the equation. If six in ten people who are employed, or have children, feel pressed for time, that means four in ten people with similar responsibilities do have time for things they want to do.

In years of studying schedules, I've met plenty of seemingly busy people in this latter camp. Despite almost infinite demands on their time, they seem...relaxed. I well recall a conversation with an executive I hoped to interview about her astonishing productivity. I began our call with an assurance that I would not take much of her time. She laughed. "Oh, I have all the time in the world," she said.

This wasn't technically true, but what she meant is that she had chosen to talk with me, and she had structured her life so that other things would wait while she focused on what she deemed worthy. She didn't have to rush.

Whatever I was racing off to, she was off the clock. To be sure, she had the support system to allow this, including an assistant who could manage interruptions. As I have met more people like her, though, I've realized that often their serenity doesn't stem from the fact that they can make other people wait for them. There isn't much crowding on their calendars when they don't want things on their calendars.

This same mind-set is reflected in people we have all encountered who don't seem to accept the normal limits of what is possible with time. They have blossoming careers. They enjoy their families and friends. They exercise most days, and volunteer, and read those books that the rest of us claim our frenzied lives won't allow time for.

It is an enviable level of calm. It is a mind-set I am curious about. How do busy people who feel relaxed about time structure their lives? What habits do they have? What choices do they make?

A Time-Diary Study

I like hearing people's stories about their schedules, but I like data too. So in early 2017, I set out to answer my questions systematically. I recruited more than nine hundred people, all of whom fell into both of those categories that Gallup found were most associated with time stress: they worked for pay (I specified for thirty-plus hours each week), and they had children under age eighteen living at home.

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